On Day 4, the writers went kayaking 12 miles down the Susquehanna River and learned how to make nature journals and how to become more observant naturists. Check out photos on our Facebook page!
The writers' fourth journal prompt is: When Merrell wrote his essay on Shamokin, he had never visited the confluence. This last spring he came here and presented a modified, and less dark, view of the place. Use the readings for today to think about the relationship between place, history, experience, and narrative. Use your insights to compose your journal entry for today.
After reading the excerpts from Merrel's work, I really questioned what I read. First of all, I was wary of any claims he seemed to be making to know both European and, particularly, the Native American mind of the time based upon accounts almost exclusively from Europeans, and particularly, from the Moravians. He seemed to accept the idea that the Native Americans were all wild drunks and making a troublesome ruckus, without questioning how much fun might be too much for the missionaries, but no too much for, say, a tavern back in Europe. On top of that, he seemed a bit too intent on finding “proof” for a central idea, and I wondered what came first, the proof or the idea. In particular, it seemed that the stories of women were molded to fit the concept of the passage. For example, in his discussion of Shamokin, Merrel seemed keen on proving that the land itself was (or was seen as) fundamentally chaotic. He described how, during one army excursion, the chaplain asked to leave “unsavory” women behind. However, each officer begged to have his particular woman come along, and they all did. This situation, Merrel writes, was a “nightmare of disorder.” Why having women along should cause such a terrible nightmare and destroy the “strict regime” of the soldiers isn't obvious. And no evidence is provided that having women destroyed the integrity of the army – instead, he provides more evidence that this “independence streak” continued. And we all know that an independent woman means chaos, right? Man is reason and order, woman is emotion and chaos, and we can prove it by ... oh wait. We can't. Merrel assumed that women bring chaos, and then used their presence to prove its presence.
These kinds of instances made me think that Merrel's ideas were a little two black-and-white. Fort Augusta was Chaos or it was Order. Why couldn't both exist, in different ways? He also repeatedly refers to events as “bewildering,”at least for the colonists. The Native Americans are “bewildering,” with all their many languages, building Fort Augusta is “bewildering” for them, and somehow this all makes Shamokin a bewildering place. I wonder if maybe those coming over to America simply didn't have a lot of experience, so that any new colony would have been a bewildering experience.
One thing I really enjoyed, however, was Merrel's discussion of the woods. Particularly he mentioned that both white settlers and natives saw the woods and a place that must be crossed to reach the other, which was stereotyped: whites as evil, tied to magic and natives as animals. The woods are a space of fear in many stories, from fairy tales to modern serial killer films*. In particular, I liked how he used this mutual wariness as a location of common ground for both cultures. To leave the land of the “self” and explore the world of the “other,” both Native Americans and Europeans had to pass from their own space, through the woods, and into the space of the other, both physically, and in a more metaphorical sense, as when the two groups would meet and exchange with each other culturally, through that central space of a translator.
* This is a complete side note, but another good story which shows the woods as a location of terror and evil is the play “Snow, Glass, Apples” by Neil Gaiman. In it, he re-writes the Snow White story, making Snow White the villain and the step-mother the heroine. This retelling makes particular sense if we consider who Snow White's allies were – all the woodland creatures and the odd men who lived in the woods.
When reading James Merrel’s essay on Shamokin, I was shocked to check the copyright date and see that this piece was published in 1998. His views were arrogant, ignorant, highly subjective and romanticized – and I was ready to excuse it if he was writing as a contemporary to the first white settlements in Shamokin or sometime in the 19th century. But his “dream of order, nightmare of disorder” rhetoric was a little too much for me to swallow from a guy writing in 1998. And it wasn’t only the Indians who suffered at his prejudices; women, white women even, caught few nasty and unfounded blows. A favorite example: Merrel writes scornfully, “Indian women also proved to have minds – and tongues- of their own,” like this was some surprising and appalling feature, that not only the European women were out of line, but also the natives.
I’m not surprised that Merrel had never been to the confluence when he wrote this, but apparently he had missed the 20th century as well.
In stark contrast, I actually really enjoyed his “Into the American Woods” piece. He seems MUCH more open-minded and just here, like he finally attended the diversity awareness assemble at a local elementary school. Ok, harsh. But I really like his ideas on the liminal space of the Edge of the Woods ceremony and the portrayed but unrealistic 50/50 European/Indian culture. A lot of this second essay - the “us and them” mindset, perspective, language, translation, perception – is profoundly interesting to me and crucial to the type of writing we’re doing.
was struck by the manner in which Merrell describes Shamokin or Fort Augusta in his essays about the region. Counter intuitively, he illustrates the confluence of the western and northern branches of the Susquehanna as a barrier, a place of divisions between white settlers and Indians; or what he refers to as “the divide between Indian and colonist, a barrier these people had built and one that they could not, would not, tear down” (21).
Yet when I once visited this location, I imagined the very opposite; the confluence became the location of interaction and exchange (of tradition, language, stories, goods). I imagined instead an intermeshing of multiple Native American Indian nations with various groups of travelers and colonists. While my own imaginings do not hold much weight, as they were buttressed by very little factual content, the stark contrast between my own ruminations and those of a more informed, but also removed, scholar shaped a sense of poignant disparity between individual visions of place.
However, Merrell apparently visited this region for the first time years after writing essays about this important place in the Susquehanna Valley. Strangely, during this visit, he reevaluated his original analysis of the historical and cultural significance of the confluence as a part of the “North American Frontiers.” As I was imagining why Merrell would modify his views of Shamokin after visiting it, I remembered our first day of the Institute, when we wrote about the Susquehanna as we sat at its bank. Photographs and maps cannot always provide the necessary experience to write a holistic account of a place. Often we write about places in terms of what happened there, who lived there, and its geography; yet over the past several days, we’ve felt the importance of actually trying to know and experience a place as an essential part of writing about that place. An author’s physical displacement from the subject encumbers her (or his) writing. Merrell understood history and employed the narrative of colonists; yet a distance remained in his writing both temporally and spatially. Perhaps when Merrell actually visited Shamokin, his individual experience of seeing, hearing and sensing Shamokin allowed him to envision a new—and perhaps more authentic—cultural-historical-physical landscape.
“Shadow may often be taken for reality,” and I believe it often is (Merrell 42). However, I wish I could say more often with confidence that I could pinpoint those occasions. Turned about as I am like to get, I work with hunches, weigh probabilities. I manage. I guess what I am saying is that what most bothers me about the essays of James H. Merrell is his certainty.
He seems so positive when he says, that was illusion, this was the real way of things. I suppose that is what is wanted in an expert. But even I, with pessimism in my blood and bone, like to harbor a little doubt. Just a grain of disbelief that says, “Well, in retrospect continued conflict between the locals and the settlers in old Shamokin looks inevitable. It certainly isn’t surprising, from a historical standpoint. But I have read a lot of history, and I have been surprised before.” I think war must be a shadow on the face of the past, an obscure and unformed blot which lets us see only what we’re looking for.
Follow me sideways a moment. Yesterday I wondered (as I have wondered before) whether the whole of the earth was a grave yet. I mean, think about the thousands and millions of years of human life, coming and going on all habitable lands. I wonder, how many places are left that haven’t been where someone died?
It’s strange to think, “someone died here,” like when you drive past a flower-covered cross or visit the apartment of the recently deceased. But you don’t think it walking through the city on your way to lunch. Maybe you should. Maybe you should think, “Ten or fifty or five hundred years ago, someone stood on this patch of ground for the last minutes of their life.” It sounds morbid, but can there be a more visceral connection of human life to landscape?
On the Susquehanna yesterday, I was very peaceful. Eagles flew, fawns frolicked, and I learned that this river—Merrell’s shadowland river—was literally older than the hills. How many people have died along its banks, do you think? For how many people, was their last sight filled with its breadth? A lot, I think. History may be obscured, but it is also long. Long beyond imagining. But from time to time I like to remind myself—here, where I am standing now, once someone else stood. Once someone else laughed. Once someone else died.
Then I can feel my own history stamped into the face of the earth.
In James Merrell’s essays, he often times incorporates primary source narratives that some would say are questionable in the accuracy of its portrayal. After all, the element of subjectivity greatly affects first-person account of an event and readers must constantly question what is included, what is not included, how things are portrayed, and why. Does this type of writing have any value in terms of history and place?
As a writer, I have difficulty writing about geographical locations that I have lived in or visited, much less places that I have never seen. Some background: As a child, I was in a constant state of motion; that is, my family moved from place to place every year. The Philippines. Maryland. Chicago (Suburb). Chicago (City). Texas. Different Chicago. Different Maryland. When I went to Spain a few years ago, we roamed nomadically and the majority of the trip was spent moving from place to place in a sailboat. I feel no specific attachment to one history, one town, one city, one state, or one country, and thus, “place” for me is very elusive, particularly when I am writing. Yet, some of my best poems always seem to have a framework associated with a place that I have experienced. Because to me, place is not only about its geography, its location on a map, who conquered what and when. It is the backyard where my cousins and I picked slugs from beneath the rocks, the stoop where my best friend and I made Native American bracelets, the playground where my friends and I ate green apple lollipops and popcorn.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that first-person accounts of place are just as important as historical essays, like the one’s by James Merrell, and maybe subjectivity reveals a truth about the relationship between human and place that no objective writing could ever teach us.
Speaking before as we did about the layers of accumulated thought, a difficulty arises in the landscape. In some cases, many of the layers carry the imprint of dark times and they remain embedded in the thought landscapes of all who are cognizant of those particular layers and sometimes even those who merely intuit the layers. Further consideration by oneself or others may reveal that the depth of the darkness associated with that time were in error, or at least not as egregious as the popular thought had depicted. For some, this is inconsequential; the layers of their consciousness are as the foundational bedrock, and no matter what others might tell them, or what they themselves experience, they cannot change. Others, however, are more open to the changing of the landscape, and when something shifts beneath them, the allow themselves to be melded, shaped by the new knowledge or experiences, like the ridges formed by the collisions of the plate tectonics. And, when we study the cross sections of the physical, mental, and sometimes cultural landscapes, we can identify the layers and how they acted when they were the newest, and we can look to see how the combination has affected the landscape.
Of course, there are times when the past is as dark and devoid of redemption as we believed, but this to carries its own kind of shift. For when we receive confirmation of something we believe or we suspect, it becomes harden in our own landscapes, supporting further development, and allowing us to move beyond what we have been holding on to.
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